The Scorpio Illusion by Robert Ludlum

Title on all-text dust jacket appears to be burningThe worst thing that can be said about a Robert Ludlum novel is that readers must pay close attention.

In The Scorpio Illusion western government leaders aren’t paying attention.

A secret group calling themselves Scorpios are plotting to throw the US, Britain and France into turmoil concurrently, precipitating a public outcry for stability that will catapult them to virtual dictatorship.

The Scorpios are positioned to make it happen. They have money, power, and the protection of the most sophisticated technology and most ruthless assassins that their money can buy.

Meanwhile, a beautiful terrorist intent on revenge for the deaths of her parents and her lover is planning to kill the US President. She and the Scorpios make common cause.

To stop her, the intelligence community calls on a former naval intelligence officer, Tyrell Hawthorne, whose wife was shot as a spy because of a mistake made by inept higher-ups.  As he begins his work, Hawthorne runs into a beautiful woman who comforted him as he grieved; he vows not to lose her again.

Ludlum complies with the requirements of thrillers—sex, romance, blood, explosions—but his real interest is on how decent people can be hoodwinked because of the very traits that make them decent people.

Scorpio Illusion by Robert Ludlum
Bantam. ©1993. 534 p.
1993 bestseller #10; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Like Water for Chocolate

Two Mexican women prepare food Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate defies categorization, as you might guess from the subtitle: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies.

Each of the 12 installments is about some specific event and features a related recipe.

Part romance, part social criticism, and part historical novel, the story feels like a fairy tale. As in fairy tales, the focus is on the story, not on why the story is important.

The story is about Tita De la Garza, who is literally born in a kitchen on a ranch in Mexico around the turn of the 20th century. As she grows older, Tita becomes a culinary artist in a time when cooking was backbreaking labor.

As a teenager, Tita wants to marry Pedro, a neighbor boy. Mama Elena (Tita’s real mother, though she acts like a wicked stepmother) insists Tita, as the youngest daughter, remain unmarried and care for her in her old age. So, Pedro is wedded to Tita’s older sister.

At the wedding (for which Tita has to make the wedding cake), Pedro tells Tita he only married Rosura so he could stay close to her.

If Esquivel’s unusual novel doesn’t tickle your fancy, it will certainly make you appreciate your microwave.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen, trans.
Doubleday. ©1992. 245 p.
1993 bestseller #9; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow

a $1000 bill in breast pocket of pin-striped suit
Love those pin-striped suits.

Scott Turow delivers Pleading Guilty as an unedited report dictated by Mack Malloy, an ex-cop turned lawyer, to his firm’s top management about their partner who disappeared along with $5.6 million.

That presentation lets readers find out about the crime and the characters in a manner that’s both shocking and, in retrospect, predictable.

Outside the courtroom, Bert Kamin, Mack’s partner at G&G, is caught up in sports betting with other macho guys who claim to have insider knowledge. Others of Mack’s associates in G&G have peculiarities that might mask unorthodox, possibly even criminal, behavior.

Mack and Emilia “Brushy” Bruccia, his associate and sex-partner, joke that their gossip is protected lawyer-client communication.

The first place Mack looks for Bert—the Russian Bath—he learns cops have already been there looking for a Kam Roberts, although the Bath pays the local watch commander to prevent such unpleasantness.

Who is Kam Roberts? And why are cops asking about him in Bert Kamin’s haunts?

Divorced, overweight, with an injured knee and booze-soaked psyche, Mack is about as attractive as Horace Rumpole and equally shrewd about crime. But unlike Rumpole, Mack is unlikely to appear in a second novel.

You’ll have to read Pleading Guilty to learn why.

Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow
Ferrar, Straus and Giroux. ©1993. 386 p.
1993 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Lasher by Anne Rice

female figure floats in sheer netting
Is it witch or woman?

Fans of Anne Rice will be delighted with Lasher, a convoluted tale about the spirit who wants to be flesh. The novel features characters from Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and her Mayfair Witches series.

In Lasher, a couple who each have an extra set of chromosomes mate, producing a non-human creature. The spirit Lasher enters the embryo which develops physically at super-human speed, leaving its mother hovering on the brink of death. Lasher’s goal is to breed a race of giants who will by their sheer numbers drive mortals from the earth.

From the time of Henry VIII, an organization called the Talamasca has investigated supernatural phenomena. It knows almost as much about Lasher and he knows of himself.

The Mayfair family, whose queen Rowan Mayfair is mother to the Lasher creature, want it destroyed for their own survival. The Talamasca want it preserved for their own study.

Those who haven’t read earlier novels in those sets may be baffled by the first 300 or so pages of Lasher. Rice tells the tale from multiple viewpoints coming from multiple locations over centuries. Some of the names are quite similar, adding to the confusion.

Rice’s story is all story. When you close the book, there’s nothing left.

Lasher by Anne Rice
Part of the Mayfair Witches series
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1993. 578 p.
1993 bestseller #10; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Vanished by Danielle Steel

cameo of child at center of gray and black dust jacket
The child is gagged.

Vanished is a totally atypical, can’t-put-down mystery from the queen of romance novelists, Danielle Steel.

The story is set in 1938 just after Kristallnacht in Germany and while the Lindbergh baby kidnapping was still fresh in American minds.

Marielle Patterson is the devoted mother of four-year-old Teddy, and dutiful wife of multi-millionaire Malcolm Patterson, for whom she had worked briefly as secretary. Both parents adore Teddy and are polite to each other.

Just hours after Marielle had accidentally run into her ex-husband at a church on the anniversary of the accident in which they lost their just-walking son and unborn daughter, Teddy is kidnapped from his bedroom.

Marielle’s ex-husband, Charles Delauney, is charged with kidnapping. Marielle doesn’t believe Charles could be the kidnapper, but all the evidence points to him.

When the case comes to trial, Marielle’s past marriage, divorce, and the mental problems after losing her children are made public. Malcolm blames Marielle for the kidnapping.

Without family or close friends, Marielle comes to rely on an FBI special agent for emotional support through an ugly trial in which the prosecutor tries to make it look as if Marielle is to blame for the kidnapping.

Steel wraps up the story in manner both hopeful and realistic.

Vanished by Danielle Steel
Delacourt Press. ©1993. 304 p.
1993 bestseller #6; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Nightmares & Dreamscapes

scarecrow in middle of road at nightNightmares & Dreamscapes includes short stories that range from merely quirky to seriously spooky, a nonfiction piece about baseball, a teleplay, and notes about pieces’ origins, all by that master of the macabre, Stephen King.

My favorites of King’s works are his stories in which the horror comes out of people rather than out of the drains or the ether. Leading the lineup of those is “Dolan’s Cadillac,”  a story about an elementary teacher who gets revenge on a gangster for killing his wife through an elaborate ruse that lures the villain to drive his Cadillac into hole sized just large enough for the car to fit in without allowing the passengers to escape.

Readers with a taste for the occult should read “The Night Flier,” in which a writer for a sleazy rag investigates a series of deaths in small East Coast towns with small airports. The journalistic elements in the tale were enough to keep my attention.

“The Doctor’s Case.” a Sherlockian spoof in which Watson solves the mystery, and  “Umney’s Last Case,” a take-off on Raymond Chandler novels, are simply fun.

Nightmares & Dreamscapes has something readers of every taste to like as well as some things to dislike.

Enjoy what pleases you.

Nightmares & Dreamscapes
by Stephen King
Viking. ©1993. 816 p.
1993 bestseller #5; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Without Remorse by Tom Clancy

Missile shots light up night sky
Sky above the POW camp

In Without Remorse, Tom Clancy trots out the hero of several earlier novels, John Kelly, in a story that mixes military action with mafia action.

Kelly’s wife was accidentally killed in a previous novel and he is still numb when he gives young hitchhiker a lift. Pam restarts his sex drive, and Kelly helps her shake her drug habit. After Pam is brutally killed by drug dealers, Kelly goes ape, hunting the men responsible. He’s efficient and brutal.

Meanwhile the Pentagon is preparing to rescue prisoners in a POW camp in terrain Kelly knows well. They recruit him to lead the rescue.

An idealistic peacenik in a federal government position leaks the plans. As troops prepare to attack, Kelly has to abort the rescue. Although his mission failed, Kelly has caught the eye of powerful people the federal government who want to use his expertise.

Before he can decide whether to take them up on their offer, he has some more drug dealers he kills without remorse.

Clancy fills pages with caricatures and pushes them through the novel on an express train powered by hostility. The story is a page-turner without a hero. Clancy may be useful to the military, but he hasn’t the moral sense to be a role model.

Without Remorse by Tom Clancy
G. P. Putman. ©1993. 639 p.
1993 bestseller #4; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend

Book title laid out in lazy curve against the Cedar Bend landscape
There’s a couple in the far distance.

The dust jacket touts Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend as a story about a once-in-a-lifetime love, but that’s misleading. James Robert Waller’s slender novel actually holds three intersecting love stories, only one of which can be told without spoiling the story.

The main story is about Michael Tillman, an economics professor, who falls head over heels in lust with the wife of a new faculty member.

Bored with husband Jim, Jellie Braden finds sexual fulfillment with Michael. Before she married Jim, Jellie Braden had had some bad experience in India which she won’t talk about.

One day Jellie just disappears.

Jim Braden is willing to wait for his wife to work out her problem but Michael gets on a plane for India, determined to find the one woman he wants.

When he finds Jellie in southwest India, he learns her previous experience there was far different—far worse—than he could have imagined.

Her present-day situation is also far more complicated than he could have imagined.

Amid all the love stories, Waller scatters wry comments about academic life that temporarily lighten the emotional tone until he can wrap up his love stories in an ending that’s more plausible than the novel’s jacket notes.

Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend
by James Robert Waller
Warner Books. ©1993. 197 p.
1993 bestseller #3; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Client by John Gresham

gold medallion bears words “The Client” and image of blind justice holding scales
Justice is blind. Lawyers are dumb.

The central character of John Grisham’s 1993 bestselling legal thriller The Client is 11 years old and about three decades more streetwise than all the adults in the novel.

Here’s the story: Mark Sway and his younger brother witness the bizarre suicide of an attorney whose client had murdered a U.S. Senator. Before killing himself, the attorney tells Mark where the mob buried the body.

While his mother stays with his brother, who’s being treated for traumatic shock, Mark retains a lawyer who specializes in helping kids caught in the legal system.

Police, FBI, and the federal prosecutor put pressure on Mark to tell what they’re sure he knows, while the mob try to make sure Mark can never tell anything to anybody again.

Grisham’s rip-snorting legal thriller provides the all the required threats, wiretaps, chases, murders, and explosions to keep readers on the edge of their seats until they read the last page.

Only then will they realize Grisham played them for suckers.

Dear reader, not all bad guys are stupid jerks. Nor are all police, FBI, and juvenile protection workers stupid jerks. And there just might be a doctor or lawyer Mark’s intellectual equal, although his attorney, Reggie Love, is probably not that person.

The Client by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1993. 422 p.
1993 bestseller #2; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Bridges of Madison County (book)

covered bridge photo bears a “cancellation” stamp saying “a novel”
Image is stamped “a novel”

In the Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller wraps a novelette inside two faked author’s notes.

The novel’s central story is about photographer Robert Kincaid, who arrives in Madison County, Iowa, to photograph its seven covered bridges for National Geographic.

He meets Francesca Johnson, a farmer’s wife and mother to two teenagers. Husband and children are at the state fair.

Their attraction is instantaneous. Their passionate affair lasts until its time for the family to come home.

Francesca chooses her family over her lover, and regrets it all the rest of her life. An “afterward” section to the story shows Robert also regretted losing her for the rest of his life.

After Francesca’s death, her children find her handwritten story of the affair. The “author’s preface” says the children gave the author Francesca’s materials and he fleshed it out.

The aura of true romance provided by the faked authors notes made the slender novel a natural for movie treatment: Clint Eastwood directed and starred in the 1995 film, that has an 87% audience score on RottenTomatoes.

The best—and worst—that can be said of the novel is that it’s pleasant entertainment with sex left to the reader’s imagination.

The Bridges of Madison County
by Robert James Waller
Warner Books. ©1992. 171 p.
1993 bestseller #1; 1994 bestseller #9.
My grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni